Van Halen’s Split Personality: How a Geek and a Physique Created Thud Rock’s Most Successful Oddsemble
It’s a cold March day in Cincinnati. Snow is drifting up against the back door, wind is seeping through the windows, and David Lee Roth is on a picnic. This is his outfit: a hooded sweat shirt with polar bears all over it, a red down vest, a pair of jungle-animal-skin leotards under baggy green pants, the kind of hat Sergeant Preston of the Yukon used to wear and a trio of Day-Glo wooden bracelets. The food arrives in a white limousine, and with his breath coming out in puffs of steam, Dave brushes the snow off a block of cement and arranges little containers of Chinese takeout food in the driveway of the Museum of Natural History.
His face nicely roasted from a recent jaunt to Haiti, Dave’s about to have a perfect little lunch. After all, his motto is It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how good you look. The restaurant forgot to send any forks or spoons, but Dave is unperturbed. He just pushes his fingers into a box of hot fried rice. A couple of handfuls of pea pods and he’s beaming, sucking in the arctic air and passing the egg rolls. His Panasonic box sits nearby in the snow, blaring out oldies by the O’Kaysions, Major Lance, all the great soul singers.
“After you get to the top of the heap, it’s very easy to kick back and say, ‘Oh, I’d like a sandwich with a little less mustard tomorrow, Edmund,'” he says, tossing back his messy blond hair. A grown man with a walkie-talkie stands nearby, just in case anyone attacks.
Dave may say that all he wants out of life is a bathing suit, but he has a curious mind. A dull moment came last year, and he enrolled in Beginner Bagpipe. He’s taking Portuguese classes and kick-boxing lessons. But this studious Dave is nothing like the guy onstage, a rock star Fred Flintstone could understand. “People want the most primal rhythms and ambiances,” he says, explaining why teenage boys idolize Van Halen, the heavy-metal band he’s fronted for some eleven years. “I feel that for the remainder of our career, people will be involved in it
“It doesn’t mean you have to fly around,” he goes on. “Bruce Springsteen hasn’t left the ground in ten years, and he still has that magnetism.”
“Do you admire Springsteen?”
“I saw one of his shows,” he says, lighting a joint. “I was very happy.”
“But was it transcendent?”
“What do you mean, transcendent?”
“Well, was it the most awesome thing you’d ever seen?”
“Honey,” Dave says, “I can go to White Castle and look in the bag and say, ‘This is the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen.'”
Eddie Van Halen has turned his room in Cincinnati’s Clarion Hotel into a little recording studio. A Sony cassette recorder dangles from a cord taped to the bedside table, and wires shoot all over the carpet: to miniature speakers, a small equalizer, a boxy black bass, his red Kramer guitar. Spread out in the center of the floor is a pile of tapes he’s recorded – the sound of bathtub farts made on a synthesizer, the insides of Marvin Hamlisch’s piano played with a fork. When Eddie comes through the door, in a red suit and a T-shirt with a red X across a picture of Bozo the Clown, he heads straight for the guitar.
He would rather play than talk. He asks you to name any old Cream song, and then he recreates the Eric Clapton solo, note for note. If you run out of ideas, he offers suggestions: “‘Spoonful’? ‘Crossroads’?” When he was a teenager, he used to slow the turntable to sixteen so he could figure out the guitar part. Clapton is his only hero in the world, and when he finally got to meet him last year, he was so nervous that he got drunk and blew the whole thing.
Eddie’s been screwing up ever since he was a kid. He was a bad student and got thrown out of high school. He still thinks he’s dumb and goofy looking. “I hope you have good questions. I’m not a good talker,” he says, opening a bottle of Blue Nun by pushing in the cork. Eddie actually looks a lot like his wife, TV star Valerie Bertinelli. He says she’s as geeky as he is. When you ask him about the kids who dream about being Eddie Van Halen, of picking up a guitar and playing it with two agile hands as if it were a piano, he says, “Oh, I am so much geekier than any of those kids dreaming about being me.”
Eddie has a smile so sweet it ought to be on a rubber doll. Pete Townshend says, “That incredible virtuosity combined with that beautiful grin allows me to forgive him for letting David Lee Roth stand in front of him.”
You get the feeling that the smile and the guitar are the two things he’s developed to fight off the world. But it still heaves in at him. He cries if you talk about the disastrous, two-month-long marriage of his brother, Alex, the band’s drummer. “If I could suck the pain out of him, I would,” he says, wringing a horrible note out of his guitar as tears well up in his eyes.
“There are too many people on this basketball that’s floating around the sun who are too afraid to allow themselves to feel,” Eddie says, “I mean, twenty years ago, men were looked at as pussies if they cried. Hey, goddamnit, I’ll cry if I want to. I’ll get horny if I want to, I’ll laugh, whatever. I’m incapable of holding things in.”
As it turns out, he doesn’t hide anything and expresses himself just fine. So why does he think he’s not a good talker?
“I guess it’s been too many goddamn years I’ve been told that I’m stupid,” he says.
“But you’re really articulate.”
“You see?” he says. “I don’t even know what that means.”
Most heavy-metal bands have so little personality they have to come up with a gimmick to sell the act, but Van Halen has two larger-than-life characters. Dave is the guy MTV zeroes in on because he’s charming, a joke machine, a man Eddie thinks ought to replace Johnny Carson someday. “Most people stop at the humor,” Dave says. “They get up around 10,000 feet and say, ‘We’re experiencing some heavy buffeting. We’ve just run into the haircut, and he’s starting to crack a lot of jokes. I think we better come back down.'” He reads books, admires, among others, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. His father’s a doctor from the Midwest. His idea of a good time is to go off with his adventure club, the Jungle Studs, on a trip to the Himalayas. He’s moody and indulges his temperament; one person in their entourage says, “We’re all childish, but Dave hasn’t been born yet.” To which Dave says, “People tell me I live in my own little world. I tell them, ‘Well, at least they know me there.'”
Eddie, on the other hand, is so shy he can’t even dance. He just plays music; many consider him the most innovative guitar player since Jimi Hendrix. His father, a jazz saxophonist and clarinetist, was a Dutch resistance fighter who was captured by the Nazis and forced to tour Germany playing in a band. When Eddie isn’t on the road, he’s in his backyard studio, called “51–50,” police code for “escaped mental patient” He’s so obsessed with writing music that when the band toured South America, he’d climb into the closet of his hotel room and hum song ideas into a tape recorder so he wouldn’t wake Valerie. But there’s obsession, and then there’s fruitcakehood, and one Van Halen insider says, “Eddie’s on the moon.” Still, Eddie is a gentle spirit. Producer Quincy Jones says, “When Eddie calls me, there always is a warm feeling when I hear him on the line.”
The way Eddie and Dave play off each other makes Van Halen what it is: a funnier, and more musical, thud-rock dinosaur. Even though there’s mutual respect, the two are always taking swipes at each other. Eddie: “I’m a musician, Dave’s a rock star.” Dave: “What did Edward do with Michael Jackson? He went in and played the same fucking solo he’s been playing in this band for ten years. Big deal!” Eddie wants to write music for the movies, and Dave wants to be a movie star, but both insist they never want to leave the band.
When they collaborate – Eddie writes the music, Dave the lyrics – they do it from different planets. The music to “Jump,” the Number One song through much of the spring, was written by Eddie about two years ago. Back then, he says, somebody in the band told him, “We don’t need that shit.” Eddie still has the original tape of the song: He’s playing a cheap little synthesizer, sitting on the floor of the living room in his house, and as he’s pounding out the notes, there’s an awful noise in the background. It is Eddie’s wife, Valerie, yelling, “Shut up!”
When the music was dredged up last year, Dave wrote the words the way he usually writes, cruising with the top down in his Mercury convertible through the canyons around L.A. He had jotted down a phrase one night while watching a television news report about a man about to jump off a building. There’s always somebody in the crowd, he thought to himself, who yells, Go ahead and jump!
The boys put together the video for “Jump” after playing the Us Festival for $1.5 million last summer. After it became one of the most popular videos ever on MTV, Van Halen received a call from Yes, Eddie says. They wanted to use the same director, the guy who had captured the band’s sexiness so unpretentiously.
But there really was no director. There was just the band, which set up the camera shots, one 16-mm hand-held camera, a bare stage, a few runs through the song with Dave changing clothes as often as he could, and then editing by Alex and the lighting director. “Oh, about 600 bucks,” hoots Dave when you ask how much their video cost. It’s ingeniously simple, just a string of deliriously flirtatious moments.
“We didn’t want any of the stuff, like, standing on the edge of a cliff with a picture in the background or fireballs thrown at you,” says Alex. “We just wanted personality.”
With the video’s success paving their way, Van Halen started a tour in January; it will run until November, winding back and forth across the country, over to Europe, over to Japan. They play mainly to audiences of teenage boys exploring the mind-bending properties of beer. So from now until Thanksgiving, it will be possible on almost any given night to find Van Halen playing to a sold-out house, the vomit of 20,000 teenagers all over the floor.
Alex Van Halen thought California sounded like a bread spread, like mayonnaise, when their dad said they were pulling up stakes in Holland and moving there. Alex was only ten, Eddie only eight, when their mom, Eugenia, who’s Indonesian, decided she wanted to join her relatives in America. Jan Van Halen, a professional jazz musician, had-played with circuses across Holland. When the Van Halens crossed the ocean, the only major possession they took was a piano.
When the boys were still little, Jan would take them on tour. Alex, who lost his virginity after a gig when he was just nine, started to fill in on drums when he was thirteen. “Just duck your head down,” his father would say, so nobody in the clubs could see he was only a kid. Ed and Al studied piano for sixteen-years, then Eddie picked up the drums. But when Alex wanted to play the drums, Ed turned to the guitar.
“Eddie,” Eugenia would call up to her son, “why do you always have to make that high, crying noise?”
But Eddie just stayed up in his room with his guitar. “Everybody,” he says, “goes through teenage growing up, getting fucked around by a chick or not fitting in with the jocks at school. I just basically locked myself up in a room for four or five years and said to myself, ‘Hey, this guitar’s never gonna fuck me in the ass.’ What I put into it, it gives me back.”
Sometime around 1973, Eddie and Alex decided to attend Pasadena City College to study music theory. (One of their teachers, Truman Fisher, remembers Alex as an excellent student, though he’d only finish half of an assignment.) Michael Anthony, a trumpet player and bass guitarist, had also enrolled in the music department. Dave Roth, whose close-knit family had relocated from Indiana to California, was taking some theater courses.
Back then, Eddie and Alex had a band called Mammoth, which had replaced their first band, the Broken Combs, in which Alex played the saxophone, Ed the piano. In a deal that got them a PA, they also got David Lee Roth, who’d been singing with a rival band called the Red Ball Jets.
One night, Michael Anthony’s band, Snake, opened for Mammoth. “I remember standing on the side of the stage,” says Michael, “watching Edward and Alex play, and thinking, ‘Wow, these guys are good.’ Then Dave came up the side of the stage, and I forget what he was dressed in, some kind of a tux vest, but that was it, with a cane and a hat. He had long hair. I don’t know if he had it colored, but I know he’d done something weird to it. And he said, ‘How do you like my boys?’ And I just went, ‘Jesus Christ, get this guy away from me.'”
But soon they hired Michael away from Snake. The Van Halens wanted to name the new band Rat Salade, but Dave thought it would be classier to call themselves Van Halen, leading people thereafter to assume that Dave is actually a guy named Van.
Their first gig, as Michael remembers it, was a private party. “The first show I played with the band, I was wearing gold lamé pants and vest, and Ed was wearing silver lame. I mean, this is a backyard party in Pasadena.”
From the start, Dave insisted that they think big. In 1977, Warner Bros, vice-president Ted Templeman saw them at the Starwood club in L.A. and almost immediately offered them a contract. “I saw their set,” says Templeman, “and there were like eleven people in the audience, and they were playing like they were at the Forum.”
Their first LP came out in 78, the first single a translation of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” that sounded, as Eddie likes to say of their music, “like Godzilla waking up.” The album sold over 2 million copies. Dave soon took out paternity insurance, and they started demanding that all brown M&M’s be removed from the caterer’s candy bowls backstage. In subsequent years, Van Halen II, Women and Children First, Fair Warning, Diver Down and 1984 sold more than a million copies each.
So they became millionaires. Eddie, who used to drive to rehearsals with the doors to his car wired shut with guitar strings, now owns two Lamborghinis.
Ted Templeman, who produced all six of the band’s records, remembers one night when Dave came into the studio with a copy of People magazine. The girl on the cover had won something like a $3 billion settlement from her Arab husband. Dave said, “Jesus, man, you could buy anything with that.”
“No, Dave,” Ted countered. “You couldn’t buy happiness.”
And Dave said, “Maybe not, but I could buy a boat big enough to sail right up next to it.”
Alex van Halen is stretched out on a sofa backstage at the Cincinnati Gardens, sound asleep with Def Leppard’s Pyromania turned up so loud that people a mile away are evacuating their homes. Scrunched up cans of Schlitz Malt Liquor lie on the floor. Michael Anthony is wandering around the hall. Dave is doing hamstring stretches on the floor, with his two midget bodyguards nearby.
Eddie is in a little room with a sign on the door that says TUNING. For hour after hour before a show, Eddie just sits in there and plays his guitar. Pass the door and what sounds like the solo he played on “Beat It” comes screaming out.
Some seventy people scurry about, getting the stage and show ready, unloading the nine 45-foot trucks that haul the equipment. Finally, it’s time for the band to go on, and there’s a deafening roar. You get the hits: “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Dance the Night Away,” their version of “(Oh) Pretty Woman.” You get a ring of fire, a phenomenal light show, loud but pristine sound and a solo in which Michael tosses his bass off a twenty-foot drop, then rolls around, wrestling it to the floor. He explains: “The guitar that I throw off, I just do the beginning of the solo with, and then I throw it off and have to jump on it a couple of times, and then I pick up another one and play.”
A physical frontman, Dave does a sword dance, jumps and kicks, and rolls over Michael’s back. “Think I could roll over Edward’s back night after night? I can’t even tap him on the shoulder without leaving bruises.” Dave talks to the audience, invites everyone to join him across the street for a drink. Though he seems to encourage drinking, he doesn’t promote drugs: “The trouble is, you try one thing, it makes you feel like a new person. Then the new person wants a hit.” He keeps changing outfits, all inspired by wrestling magazines and comic books. “If I had to go in front of Judge Wapner, I couldn’t prove that any of this happened,” he said one day. “All I could show him was some very colorful clothing.”
The drum solo is amazing. Alex is usually overlooked, but he’s a brilliantly musical drummer, almost as responsible as his brother for the heart-stopping power of “Jump.” few years ago, after the band was asked to open a date for the Rolling Stones in Florida before some 150,000 people, he broke his hand in four places. He couldn’t even hold a drumstick. So he tied the stick to his wrist with a shoelace and went on with the show.
Whenever Eddie steps up to play a solo, the kids go mad. He’s had a little shelf built under his guitar so he can prop it up and play it like a piano. He has only one volume knob and one pickup. “I don’t like depending on an electronic piece of machinery to get different colors and sounds,” he says. That’s why he never admired Jimi Hendrix. “It’s the only damn thing that I would like people to at least acknowledge and respect me for, because I fuckin’ have done things that no one’s done before.”
At the end of the concert, the band hugs together at the front of the stage to sing “Happy Trails,” and the kids light their Bics. And how does it all make Dave feel?
“Like Burt Reynolds.”
“I Wish I had more than one dick,” Alex Van Halen is saying as he circles the backstage party after the show. Girls dance with each other, trying to catch his eye. The roadies get fifty dollars for delivering the prettiest ones. Al, the band’s handsomest member, has the worst reputation for munching on backstage visitors. Since Van Halen’s early days, he’s been quoted as saying there’s a little Van Halen in everybody. Dave explains it this way: “When the people scream so hysterically for such a sustained period of time, they’re screaming for themselves. Not for me. Not because Eddie is so great. But because they see themselves reflected in us.”
Eddie’s idea of making an appearance at these parties is to dart through them slumped over, in a Groucho kind of walk, making a beeline for a closet or anywhere there’s privacy. It’s not unusual to go off looking for a bathroom and find Eddie. In New York, at a party at Madison Square Garden, Eddie found have in the kitchen with his engineer and best friend, Donn Landee. When Julian Lennon turned up after a show in New Jersey, Eddie pulled him into the bathroom to talk.
All in all, the backstage scene is calmer than it was a few years ago, when girls routinely danced nude on the tables. After all, Ed and Michael are married now. “I don’t like one-night stands,” Eddie says. “I don’t like getting the clap. I wanna have kids. I wanna go through life with somebody.”
Dave, of course, is still browsing, having just broken up with a girl who whined that she was an actress trapped in a model’s body. “You take what you have in front of you, and you make the most of it,” he says of the women he meets on tour. “You either dance with it or you share a beer with it or you just hold its hand for ten minutes.”
“I think we treat women with respect,” Alex says. “And if they want to come back to the hotel with me after the show, no problem.”
Eddie is in a limo, riding back to the hotel. He really doesn’t like all this traveling; all the cities seem the same. He just wants to be back in his studio. The car pulls into the parking lot, and the headlamps shine into a crowd. The bodyguards cut a path for Eddie, who takes my hand and starts to steer through all the kids. Near the door, I feel a hand tugging at my arm. It’s a pretty blond, maybe seventeen. “Way to go,” she says.
Dave, too, is headed back to his room alone. A red baseball cap is pulled down over his Tuesday Weld locks. “After cloud dancing for two hours, what then? You get lonely. The world is not made of New York Cities or Los Angeleses and Dallases. It’s made of Tuna Fish, Wyoming, and Lone Ranger, Oklahoma. I always make the joke, ‘Yeah, you’re lonely. You’re lonely in your Learjet.’ But it does happen.
“You feel like you’re chasing the ice-cream truck through the rain.”
This story is from the June 21, 1984 issue of Rolling Stone.